This month South Africa celebrates 350 years since it made its first wines at the Cape of Good Hope. Not bad for a so-called New World winemaking nation. But then South Africa, arguably like no other, straddles both Old and New worlds.
This warm land is able to make big wines with bags of ripe New World fruit, which can also encompass a decidedly Old World earthiness and elegance. Then there's the country's attention to its "terroir". This has seen it focus on its diverse regions, matching grapes to the appropriate sites and soils, with plantings in cooler coastal regions and higher altitude sites ushering in fresher cooler climate styles.
South Africa's wines have had a somewhat chequered history both at home and in New Zealand. Since Jan van Riebeeck, the first governor of the Cape exclaimed back in 1659, "Today, praise the Lord wine was pressed from Cape grapes for the first time," its wines have incurred criticism as well as acclaim.
South Africa got off to a promising start, producing the first great wine from the New World in the 18th century with the legendary rich and aromatic dessert wine, Constantia. You can still taste this positive tradition in the excellent and unctuous Vin de Constance from Klein Constantia ($83 from local South African wine specialist, www.planetwine.co.nz), which has revived this star.
After gaining a foothold in the New Zealand market by the 70s, South African wines disappeared from New Zealand's shelves in the era of anti-apartheid sanctions, only to return looking rather tired and old fashioned in the light of the progress made by fruit-filled New World competitors such as Australia.
Those wines and less than exciting brands were unfortunately the first taste many New Zealanders had of South Africa's bounty.
But it's worth giving South African wines another look, as over the last decade it has seriously upped its game. Chenin blanc has historically been the country's main calling card and tended to be rather bland. But when paid the attention it deserves, South Africa's chenin can come close to the tangy, minerally character of benchmark examples from the Loire.
In the reds, South Africa's pinot noir-cinsault cross, pinotage, is its flagship grape. Well made, it's a completely different animal to the beastly examples of South Africa's past or indeed our own. These run the range from simple and lighter raspberry fruited wines to ones with plenty of rich earthy dark berry and power from a premium region like Stellenbosch. Its Bordeaux blends are also scaling new heights and shirazes are gaining momentum and stature.
After 350 years of mixed fortunes, South African wines are definitely on the up and well worth hunting down.
Out of Africa
Nod to the rhone
Goat's Do Roam Red 2006 $18
Fairview's Charles Back is one of the South African wine industry's great innovators, producing an excellent range of wines that cheekily borrow from their Old World inspiration. Like Cotes du Rhone, this robust spicy red blend, with its chunky blackberry and plum fruit and smoky, meaty and savoury notes, features the likes of shiraz, mourvedre and grenache, with a South African twist of bold ripe pinotage.
From Scenic Cellars.
Jumps in quality
Leopard's Leap Western Cape Chenin Blanc 2006 $17.99
With its dry citrussy palate interleaved with subtle notes of almond, honey and apple, this Western Cape chenin contains the variety's classic characters at a competitive price.
From Artisan Fine Wine Suppliers, Wine Circle in Kumeu.
Kaapzicht Stellenbosch Pinotage 2005 $25.99
A big rich bargain which illustrates south Africa's New World nature through the depth of its dark dense berry fruit overlaid with spicy coffee ground-like oak, as well as exuding Old World complexity in its savoury, earthy and gamey nuances. A lot of interest for little outlay. From Artisan Fine Wine Suppliers, Point Wines.